Netbooks and Windows 7

Hey there AskPerf – my name is Craig Marcho and I am a Support Engineer with the Performance team in Texas.  Today’s post is going to be something a little different than you’re used to seeing on AskPerf.  We’re going to take a look at my recent experiences with Windows 7 and a netbook laptop.  I remember the first ‘portable’ computer that I was able to get my hands on.  It weighed probably 8 pounds (it felt like more) and had a monochrome screen.  It was a truly portable machine, but you didn’t want to have to carry this thing around a whole lot.  From that point on, it seemed that laptop manufacturers began to make them smaller, more powerful and lighter.  Somewhere this focus shifted back to making larger 15” and 17” screens, with power that rivaled most desktop systems (hence the Desktop Replacement laptops!), and along with that the weight and size crept back up.  Fast forward to the present time …

… and we have the netbooks.  Small, lightweight, ultra-portable – netbooks are perfect for surfing the web or reading email.  Most netbooks have a 9” or 10” screen, although some models boast a 12” screen.  On average they weigh between two and three pounds, which makes them fairly kid-friendly as well.  However, as with all conveniences, there is a tradeoff.  Netbooks do not (usually) have CD / DVD drives on-board – you have to use an external USB drive.  The netbook I purchased last October came preinstalled with Windows XP Home Edition.  I immediately loaded a pre-Beta build of Windows 7 on the netbook to test it out.  I was actually quite surprised at how well the OS ran!  I still have my 15” laptop with various applications loaded, so I figured I’d start installing applications on the netbook and see just how serviceable this machine could be.  Obviously, the netbook was never meant to be a replacement for a primary workstation, but I had no issues running Microsoft Outlook 2007, a number of internal applications, and of course Internet Explorer 8.  I was able to do almost everything on the netbook that I was able to previously do on my larger laptop.  The ultra-portability of the netbook made it extremely useful to take to meetings, and even when eating lunch in the cafeteria I was able to keep my netbook running and keep an eye on my emails and my customer support incidents.  Windows 7 and netbooks are definitely looking like a winning combination – and here are some of the main reasons why, and how you can benefit from them.

First of all, Windows 7 has a smaller footprint than Windows Vista.  We’re all so used to Operating Systems getting bigger with each release, Windows 7 reverses that trend.  This is ideal for a netbook since many of them have smaller Solid State Drives (SSD), Atom Processors and only 1GB of RAM.  Although these components can be upgraded (depending on the model), it is certainly nice to know that the base netbook hardware will support a Windows 7 installation.

I mentioned Solid State Drives a moment ago.  Windows 7 is able to detect and configure the OS to take advantage of SSD technology.  This is important because SSD’s operate differently than the Parallel and Serial ATA drives that we are used to working with on desktop class systems.  SSD’s are flash-memory based and do not have a rotating platter and a head that moves back and forth.  The number of write cycles to a block of flash memory is limited however, and once you hit the limit on that block it is marked bad and can no longer be used.  To mitigate this limitation, SSD’s use a wear-leveling algorithm to keep the writes to memory blocks even over the lifetime of the drive – thus avoiding wearing a particular block out prematurely.  With this in mind, we can see why SSD’s do not require defragmentation since there is no delay in searching for sectors via the platter / heads method.  In light of this, Windows 7 will not automatically configure defragmentation on SSD’s.  It is unlikely that during the normal course of the life of your netbook that you will render your SSD useless, but if you were to defragment a SSD repeatedly you would “waste” the number of writes available to the blocks of the drive.

OK – so is a netbook really viable in an Enterprise environment?  Remember that the netbooks are marketed as very basic devices for surfing the web and reading email.  I threw the question out to some folks around the office that have netbooks to get their thoughts on how they were using their netbooks at work and how they have seen their customers leverage the smaller form factor.  One scenario that many of them had seen was using the netbooks in a warehouse – walking around and performing inventory tasks on an ultra-portable system.  Using Remote Desktop on a netbook platform was also listed as a common scenario.  Since Remote Desktop requires very little in the way of resources on the local system, this was an ideal use for a netbook system.  I’ve already mentioned that I take my netbook to meetings and presentations – this was another popular usage scenario.  Many netbooks now have integrated 3G WWAN cards, which makes them useful when you are not near a Wireless Access Point, but need to connect to a remote system.

So the future looks bright indeed for netbooks – especially with Windows 7.  If you happen to have one, I highly recommend taking Windows 7 for a spin on it – you might be surprised!

– Craig Marcho

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